To engage a diverse workforce you need to change focus
Numerous studies show how to engage a diverse workforce by focusing on different age groups, but how many take into account the impact of life stages? Not everyone fits into the neat employee stereotypes of young and ambitious, old and family-orientated.
“Life stages” can be defined as the major, deeply affecting, perhaps “spiritual” processes in an adult’s life, during which he or she tends to reassess and re-balance their life values and priorities. The consequences of these processes can have a big impact on a person’s attitude towards work.
Caroline Waters, deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), has recently released a statement urging recruiters and human resources professionals to change their assumptions about employees and to take this “life stage” approach seriously.
She says that currently we focus too much on general characteristics, such as age and religion, when determining how to manage people, which is the wrong way to go about things if we want employee engagement and retention to improve.
Obviously, in a large company, the propensity for HR to stereotype employees based on the superficial traits of their age, is high. But let’s be fair – no team can be expected to personalise their treatment of every single employee.
The solution is therefore somewhere in between: to make your team aware of the different life stages, whilst at the same time avoiding the urge to lay down a prescriptive protocol for each stage.
Identifying Life Stages: A Brief Overview
In 1978, Daniel Levinson, a psychologist, published his “Seasons of Life” theory, which is one of the most widely regarded theories on the stages of growth that occur during adulthood. His theory is made up of sequence-like stages, with each stage being shaped by an event or action that leads into the next stage.
Here’s a brief introduction to the first three life stages:
- Early Adult Transition: a person leaves adolescence and begins to make choices about adult life; including whether to enter the workforce, choose a serious relationship, or to leave home;
- Entering the Adult World: a person makes more concrete decisions regarding their occupation, friendships, values, and lifestyles;
- Early Transitions: lifestyle changes could be mild or more severe in this stage, depending on, for example, the impact of marriage or having children;
You can read more about the other three life stages here.
With this in mind, there follows a set of principles to implement within the way your organisation structures and manages a diverse workforce.
Avoid Making Assumption About “Young” and “Old” Employees
A recent CIPD report discovered that there is indeed a strong link between age and work priorities – for example, younger people seem to hold values such as trust, recognition (in terms of promotions and career growth) and freedom highly, while older age groups generally focus on achieving a good work-life balance.
It is, of course, necessary to be aware of these overarching trends, however, it’s also important to keep an open mind and to understand that many other factors play a part in each individual’s attitude to work.
A Jewish male, for example, in his early twenties who has just become a father might have much more in common with a 40-something Muslim employee who has also just become a father, than with other employees of his own age and religion.
Recognise a Young Person Looking for Career Stability Over Development
Younger Gen Y and Millennial professionals may, in general, emphasise career development opportunities and “finding their calling” as a key driver, however, this is not the case for every individual.
A 25-year-old who has already committed to something in life early (e.g. is married) may instead be looking for a consistent and stable work commitment, rather than pursuing a more progressive, but riskier, career path.
Recruitment and HR teams should ask more personal questions about employees before pitching career opportunities or making structural changes.
Recognise an Older Person Seeking Career Progression Over Stability
Similarly, there is a large percentage of the older working population who may feel like they have yet to assert themselves in a corporate environment. Perhaps they focused on more ‘nurturing’ qualities during young adulthood, like taking care of family, travelling, or developing personal relationships.
During the mid-life transition, we often want to rebalance, and delving into a new career could be the right move for those who have previously been unsure of what they wanted. Again, it’s always worth understanding an individual’s back-story.
Group and Inspire People Using Employee Networks
In any professional setting, internal networks flourish naturally: people in similar life stages will naturally share ideas and work together. As they connect around shared interests and knowledge, they may build informal social networks, often via smartphones, social media, community websites, and other accessories of the digital age.
Use such things as employee surveys, e-mail and ad hoc analysis to map the way people gravitate towards each other within your organisation and treat individuals based on the characteristics of their network.
Understand – Through Measurement – How Your Corporate Culture Functions
One final great way to understand employee life stages within your organisation is to think “people operations” (originally pioneered by Google). This is essentially a data-led approach to human resources, based on retaining employees by understanding what drives them. Employee satisfaction surveys, team assessments and social media are great ways to accurately identify issues that affect your organisation.
Traditionally the employee survey doesn’t ask employees how many different aspects of their work matter to them. However, I see no reason why organisations couldn’t start to have this kind of dialogue with their employees.